(I’ll be Your) Steppin’ Stone

Minor Threat, “Minor Threat,” 1984 (Discord Records, DC)

With apologies to Minor Threat (and ultimately to Paul Revere and the Raiders) there are times when it’s appropriate to act as a stepping-stone. [1] Granted, in a political and social context it’s a condition to avoid, but as a teacher it’s a model I rather like. I don’t mean that in the sense of someone walking over me or anyone else, but in the sense of approaching our particular instruction as just one stop along a longer path. There are a few reasons I prefer this model to the top-down one too often assumed.

Top-Down Teaching

Despite centuries of change our conception of teaching is more or less medieval. The university, for example, was born in the Middle Ages and was, like most of society at the time, hierarchical. It’s not a bad system, and it works for many things, but it has been slow to adapt as societies have changed, as the purposes of education have changed. Other guild systems, particularly in skilled trades, have adapted better. [2] In fencing, as I’ve shared here before, the traditional model of master and student has worked well, and working one on one it’s still the best way to learn (assuming good rapport). I maintain it is still a discussion rather than a lecture, or ought to be, but I’ve worked with masters who definitely saw it as a one-way transfer and still I learned a lot. Group instruction tends to follow the same notion of information transfer.

No one in traditional or historical fencing is unaware of the challenges in teaching groups—it’s just plain harder to do. [3] Attention is divided, skill levels and experience can vary widely, and some systems are harder to teach than others. Seminars, for example, can be great, but we have to be realistic about our goals with them. That holds for students as much as instructors. Typically an instructor runs a class in a short window, from say two hours to a day, and in most cases expects attendees to keep up. Seminars are great for exposing people to something new, but not so great for retention or skill-growth unless the students are relatively advanced and know how to learn. [4] Meeting different needs in different ways is extremely difficult to do, and few top-down models accommodate the flexibility to do any of that well. So, one downside to the top-down model is that it tends to be unadaptive; this is more true in group settings than in individual lessons since an experienced instructor can read a student’s skill level and identify problem areas more easily. With a small group one can move among students and manage more individually, but in cases where one student needs far more help than the others figuring out how much to dial back or press on is a tough call. Finding a happy medium in cases like that is challenging—too often we either leave someone behind or hold everyone else back.

But… but my medals Bruh!

An additional issue with the top-down model centers around expectations. People who seek out a fencing master at a traditional or Olympic school accept that someone will be teaching them, and, that the person in question has information or skills that they themselves do not yet possess. Thus, a maestro, by virtue of training and experience, has built-in authority than no historical fencing instructor without such certification can assume. For the most part, “HEMA” has been more grass-roots, and authority far less obvious or certain. It’s a perennial problem. HEMA is ever at the whim of demagoguery. Popularity spreads via social media and has more weight than most anything else save tournament success. The problems with both should be obvious, but they aren’t. There is no automatic equivalency between fame and skill; they can correlate, sure, but that’s a maybe, not a given. Likewise, tournament performance can mean something, but it doesn’t mean what those who hold it up as the tantamount benchmark think it does. This is one reason that movements like HEMA eventually fracture—no amount of evidence puts the slightest dent in anything driven more by ego than sense, and both popularity and naivete about tournament success are, by and large, inseparable from ego needs and external validation.

In a related way, instructors who favor the top-down model sometimes suffer a strange mix of imposter-syndrome and arrogance. This drive for success is fueled by a wish for recognition from students and fellow instructors and/or a fear that they’re letting their students down. In this version they feel they aren’t doing enough or that their efforts are inadequate, or, that their work is unappreciated. That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself. We must be concerned about doing the best work we can do, absolutely, but the responsibility to learn is not the instructor’s alone. Students must carry their burden too. People learn in different ways, at different rates, and try as we might there is only so much a diligent instructor can do. Sometimes no matter what we do, we are just the first to acquaint students with a new idea; this means that often they will not realize it let alone recognize each step or person who helped them. If our goal is sharing the Art more than appreciation then we should be happy with the fact they have that new understanding. If they remember us, great, but they don’t have to.

Allied/Collaborative Teaching

My preferred method of instruction is collective, mutual, because in teaching others we learn and grow too, least we should. However skilled, a teacher is nothing without students—it’s somewhat symbiotic. One of the benefits to this model is that it assumes and incorporates student skill and experience, and thus the burden to “teach” while still on the instructor is a burden in some respects shared. For example, for the last few months I’ve been advising a local branch of a larger club in Insular broadsword. Thanks to Covid, this school, one of the largest in our area, can’t meet en masse, and so they’ve divided in two for the time-being. The head instructor, Mike, is a close friend of mine; I check in with him about my curriculum, our progress, and keep him informed because I’m working with part of his crew. It’s collaborative in the sense that my friend trusts me to give them what they need, and that I’m coaching some of his people, but it goes a step deeper than that.

I rely on the experience and perspective of these students. Most have studied Fiore’s Armizare, some fight in harness, and most have also studied other branches of the Art, from MMA to other schools of fencing. Because they were taught well, they understand the basic, universal principles behind sword-arts, and thus are quick studies. I speak just enough Fiore to help them bridge the differences, say in comparing Roworth or Angelo’s cutting charts, Radaellian molinelli, and Fiore’ segno—all cover the same lines (not an accident), and, all enshrine critical aspects of their respective systems. Working from the familiar they more easily gain the unfamiliar. They ask questions, we break to discuss what they discover during the drills I put them through, and as a result they’re building not just technique, but as importantly, understanding by applying it in problem-solving. [5] Time will tell how many stick with it, but their time will not have been wasted. The knowledge, understanding, and appreciation for the Art will have grown.

Like a well-placed, solid stepping-stone my function is to support them best as I can while they’re with me. Some will continue down this path, a few may follow the same path but with a different instructor, and many more will take another route all together, but if I’ve done my job I’ve given them what they need while their feet stood on the stone I manage. Kahil Gibran (d. 1931) famously wrote that “Your children are not your children/They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself./They come through you but not from you,/And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” [6] A less poetic by equally powerful analogy is the unsung hero of any nation, the elementary school teacher. They teach students for a year, teaching them the skills they will need in life and that will enable them to continue learning. They get little respect, next to no pay, yet no one has a more important task than they do. No one. Nothing I teach is as important—people can live with knowing how to feint-cut head or disengage—but like them most fencing instructors are a temporary fixture in a fencer’s life. That’s not always the case, but I think it’s a healthy approach—it keeps us responsible and on task, and helps us avoid concerns over turf, ownership, and other distractions. So, “my” students are mine while they work with me, and in the sense that they may carry on to others what was passed on to me, but their journey with the Art is their own. This doesn’t mean I have no responsibility, quite the opposite, but it does mean that my focus remains on the material, on sharing it effectively, and in helping others learn and enjoy skills difficult to acquire rather than on numbers, reputation, or a legacy. I must make the absolute best use of the time I have with them, and since it’s usually short, I must stay sharp too, reading, drilling, and improving.

Mixed Approach

The collaborative model is more result than method. In truth, when I’m teaching or advising generally it’s because I have the background, education, and training to teach that topic. I won’t teach things I know I’m not qualified or ready to teach (yet another plug for continuing education). One reason people go to me, when they do, is because I know the sources well, and I’ve been fencing and researching it for a very long time. None of it “belongs” to me; it was all devised and written by others, some of which was passed on to me, some of which I have studied, but regardless I’m more a conduit than anything else. A blocked pipe is inefficient, it doesn’t do its job well, so potential clogs, especially those of ego, have no place in teaching. One needs to be confident, but any real confidence is born of ability, not desire, and smart students quickly spot the difference.

In sum, what I want is for them to learn and enjoy the material, not shower me with attention, kudos, or external validation. The top-down model can work, but it more easily facilitates those interested in self-worth generation than the Art. For instructors like that, because they are the font of information, it can be harder to be questioned, less comfortable working with other equally skilled (never mind superior fighters), and easier to worry too much about rep and not enough about the material and the best strategies for sharing it.

An important caveat: all of us have an ego. Most if not all of us struggle with self-worth in some fashion. I’m no exception. The difference is I’ve been lucky, or unlucky depending upon how one views it, to have spent far, far too much time around people driven by ego, and I’ve seen the results both to those same people and those they teach, in fencing and in academia. The fewer the rewards, the more savage the fight over scraps.

Young Kendoka in mokuso, via Pinterest

Having started in Asian martial arts, where Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the ego inform so much, I view the Art, whatever the branch, fencing included, as paths by which to grow. [7] Decades of training, wherever I’ve had it, have only proven to me how important it is to get out of our own way. Li Mu Bai, one of the protagonists in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), said “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up to find yourself again.” This applies to many things, teaching included, and I believe that we do our best work, teach the most effectively, when we recognize the gifts others bring to a class, when we try to meet them in the middle, and when our focus is genuinely on the Art rather than ourselves.


[1] Cf. Paul Revere and the Raiders, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” Midnight Ride, 1966, Vinyl; the song was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. I’d heard the original and the cover by the Monkees, but by age and location I always think of this as track by Minor Threat, “Steppin’ Stone,” Minor Threat/First Two Seven Inches, 1984.

[2] There is a lot of literature about medieval education. See for example John W. Baldwin, The Scholastic Culture of the Middle Ages, 1000-1300 (Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1997); Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the 12th Century (New York, NY: Meridian, 1972) & The Rise of Universities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965) are now dated, but classics and worth a read; Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 3rd Ed. (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1991);

[3] See especially László Szabó, Fencing and the Master (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 1997, 11-14; see also Zbigniew Czajkowski, Understanding Fencing: The Unity of Theory and Practice (Staten Island, NY: SKA Swordplay Books, 2005), 132139; 182-187; 280.

[4] Advanced students, because they have a solid knowledge of universal principles, can more easily “mine” a class than can new or intermediate students. Newer students still benefit, and as I’ve set things up they intermix with more advanced students for whom broadsword is new too. This brings them all up faster. In the past, this has worked well, and seems to be doing so now. The only hiccups hitorically have been unteachables, i.e. students who believe they already know everything and dismiss what we’re doing because it doesn’t conform to their notion of things. They tend to be disruptive, critical, and keen to put the stupid instructor in their place—happily, they don’t last and leave when they can’t “spar.” Until recently I was keen to try to help them out, convert them as it were, but there is an old saying about arguing with a fool only makes two fools, so…

[5] More and more I’ve been working to adapt some of the approaches we use in individual lessons for groups. My plan for the next post is to explore some of this in more detail.

[6] Kahil Gibran, The Prophet (West Molesey, UK: Senate, 2004), 20.

[7] Lest anyone think that self-improvement via fencing is unique to Asia I’d like to share this short passage from J. Olivier’s smallsword treatise from 1771:

It is the cultivation of this art that unfetters the Body, strengthens it, and makes it upright; it is it, that gives a becoming gait, and easy carriage, activity and agility, grace and dignity; it is it that opportunely awes petulance, softens and polishes savageness and rudeness; and animates a proper confidence; it is it which, in teaching us to conquer ourselves that we may be able to conquer others, imprints respect and gives true valour, good nature and politeness; in fine, which makes a man fit for society.

[J. Olivier, Fencing Familiarized: or, A New Treatise of the Art of Sword Play, 1771 (London, UK: John Bell, Google Books), xliv-xlvi.]

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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